ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's airwaves and billboards are dominated by speeches and campaign ads for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of Sunday's presidential and parliamentary elections, drowning out the opposition candidates in a country where the media is strongly biased in favor of the government.
Nevertheless, Erdogan is facing a tough challenge to his 15 years in power as a more united and galvanized opposition tries to thwart his attempt to remain in office for five more years — and with vastly increased powers.
Although Erdogan still tops opinion polls, an outright first-round victory in the presidential race is far from certain. The polls also indicate that Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, risks losing its majority in parliament.
As in the past two elections and last year's referendum, the odds are stacked against the opposition. The pro-Kurdish party's candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, is running his election campaign from jail, while other candidates are hardly seen on mainstream media, which are either controlled by the government or face pressure not to give a voice to the opposition. Additionally, Erdogan makes full use of state resources to run his campaign.
Despite this, the opposition has "certainly very much improved its game," said Sinan Ulgen who heads the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank. "This is an opposition that has essentially been rejuvenated and vitalized."
For the first time, the various opposition parties — secularists, Islamists, nationalists and Kurds — are uniting their efforts against Erdogan, and the parties are fronted by charismatic figures who have staged more energized campaigns. Turkey's troubled economy will also likely affect the election, with rising prices and the falling lira.
Erdogan's biggest rival is a combative, 54-year-old former physics teacher, Muharrem Ince, who has wooed supporters with witty comebacks against verbal attacks from Erdogan. The son of farmers — he himself herded animals in his youth — he has captured attention beyond his center-left Republican People's Party's traditionally urban and secular base, reaching out to conservative voters and Kurds. An election rally in Turkey's mostly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir drew unexpectedly large crowds.
"He is the new star of Turkish politics. He connects very well with the crowds and the people can relate to him because of his modest background," said Serhat Guvenc of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.
Ince has painted the future as particularly bleak if Erdogan emerges triumphant on Sunday.
"If Erdogan wins this election again, we are toast. Toast," he told supporters during a recent rally. He predicted that the Turkish Lira could fall as low as 10 to the U.S. dollar, from the current 4.7, and that some 2.5 million new Syrian refugees could enter the country.
"Our prestige in the world would collapse. Dark days would await Turkey," Ince said.
Also a force to be reckoned with is Meral Aksener, 61, who split from Turkey's main nationalist party following a spat with its leader over his support for Erdogan. Turkey's first female interior minister, she formed the Good Party, which is made up of former nationalists and center-right figures.
It's an uphill battle for the opposition candidates to get media coverage, though. While Erdogan's election speeches are broadcast on television in their entirety, Ince's are often cut mid-speech and Aksener's campaign events hardly make the airwaves at all. Critics say media are under pressure to ignore Aksener because of her party's potential to drive nationalist votes away from Erdogan's alliance with a nationalist party.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ince complained media organizations cut his speeches "as soon as Erdogan takes the microphone into his hands."
According to May figures by opposition members of Turkey's media watchdog, the state broadcaster had Erdogan on air for 68 hours, Ince for 7 hours and Aksener for 13 minutes.
As in the previous ballots, opposition parties have been relying on social media to mount their campaigns. Aksener's Good Party, for instance, has used Google to deliver witty political messages in response to some searches.
Meanwhile Demirtas, the charismatic 45-year-old former co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party who has been in prison since November 2016 and is fighting terror-related charges has had to find novel ways to campaign. These have included delivering a campaign speech during a bi-weekly telephone call with his wife and answering questions through his lawyers.
Demirtas and other critics of Erdogan insist the case against the Kurdish party leader is politically motivated. If his party manages to breach the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, he could cost the winner dozens of seats in the now 600-member legislative body. In the June 2015 elections his party won 13 percent of the vote.
"With the exception of President Erdogan, all of my fellow candidates have declared that I should be freed," Demirtas said in an opinion piece in the New York Times published Wednesday. "They cast aside ideological differences and came to my defense because they know the government is holding me for its own political gain and not for any crime I committed."
Demirtas has stressed that an Erdogan win would leave the legislative, judicial and executive powers in the president's hands.
"There will not be any institution to oversee the tiniest mistake that one person will do or control or limit. The fate of 81 million people will be left to one person's mercy," he said in a campaign speech.
The June 24 elections will usher in a new governing system, switching Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency, following constitutional changes that were narrowly approved in a referendum last year. The post of prime minister will be abolished, concentrating even more power in the hands of the president.
The opposition has vowed a return to a parliamentary democracy with distinct separation of powers.
International security body the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is deploying as many as 350 short-term observers to monitor the polls, following recent changes to electoral procedures that the opposition fears could lead to fraud.
The changes permit the government to appoint government officials to oversee polling stations. Citing security, officials have moved and merged some polling, affecting 144,000 predominantly Kurdish voters. The changes also allow the electoral authority to count as valid ballot papers lacking an official stamp — a practice that led to accusations of fraud during last year's referendum.
Turkey is still under a state of emergency declared after a 2016 failed coup attempt, which allows authorities to ban demonstrations and protests. Some 50,000 people have been arrested and around 110,000 people have been dismissed from government jobs. Hundreds of news outlets and non-governmental organizations have been shut down
"One (candidate) is in jail, the other is not heard of at all in the media," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of Ince's CHP party. "On the other hand, (Erdogan) appears on all television channels 24 hours per day. Is this justice?"